NBA dressed,ready to show

Nov 1, 2005 4:52 AM

The NBA’s 82 game regular season gets underway Tuesday with defending champion San Antonio the team to beat and perhaps stronger.

Led by Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, San Antonio is as complete a team with solid depth as we’ve seen in recent seasons. Barring injuries, the Spurs will be as formidable as they’ve been for much of the decade.

Phoenix enjoyed a spectacular season in 2004-05 but the injury to power forward Amare Stoudemire that will sideline him for the first half of the season is a severe blow. The Suns are still talented, but key offseason losses could hamper their ability to even make the Playoffs in a very deep Western Conference.

Denver is a team on the rise and could be the Phoenix of this season. The Nuggets are very talented and became the best team in the NBA over the final few months when hiring George Karl as coach in the middle of last season Denver lost a first-round playoff matchup to the Spurs in five games due in part to lack of postseason experience.

Dallas and Houston should be solid again and the new look Sacramento Kings also figure to be a playoff team. Minnesota figures to rebound from missing the playoffs last season with Kevin Garnett still at the top of his game. New coach Dwayne Casey takes the Wolves, who grew complacent under former coach Flip Saunders. They should be primed for a good season.

Utah should be improved with a healthy Carlos Boozer and Andrei Kirilenko continuing the transition for the Karl Malone/John Stockton led Jazz.

Of course the major offseason development in the West was the return of Phil Jackson to the Lakers bench. He rejoins Kobe Bryant, but there is no Shaquille O’Neal. Jackson’s coaching and personnel handling talents will be greatly tested.

Coaching was also the big offseason news in the East where Larry Brown assumes command of the New York Knicks. Brown has continually demonstrated the ability to turn around struggling, if not underachieving, teams. The Knicks certainly present such an opportunity or challenge. Making .500 with a hodge podge roster, would be a remarkable achievement for Brown.

Flip Saunders takes over for Brown at Detroit. The Pistons are favored along with Miami to make the Eastern Conference Finals. The Pistons have much experience and are well balanced. They should be more active at the offensive end of the court under Saunders.

Miami’s tandem of Shaq and Dwyane Wade is arguably the best one team duo in the league. The Heat should again challenge for the best record in the East. Indiana, New Jersey and Philadelphia will also be strong, but it will be interesting to see LeBron James can finally lead Cleveland into the playoffs.

It will also be intriguing to see if Washington can continue its improvement with a decidedly different roster. At season’s end we expect Miami to win the East and San Antonio to take the West.

In the Finals, we like Miami to win in six games.

Here’s a look at three games this weekend.

Nets at Raptors (Fri): New Jersey’s Vince Carter returns to his land of exile from which he was freed in last season’s trade from Toronto. Carter elevated his game since the trade. Toronto has Chris Bosh, but can’t trade points. NETS.

Spurs at Mavs (Sat): Three of four matchups between these West powers last season went "under" the posted total. If the total is around 175, look for a similar result. UNDER.

Nuggets at Lakers (Sun): Denver will be a chic pick to show great strides, while great intrigue surrounds Phil Jackson’s return to the Lakers’ bench. Neither played Saturday. The home team won and covered all four matchups last season. LAKERS.